Naturally — no doubt in harmony with the philosophies of its core reader base — a Providence Journal article about the state government’s new program to buy farmland and sell it to beginner farmers at “a steep discount” is celebratory. What’s not to love about a program that takes money away from people in order to heavily subsidize a space-intensive occupation to support businesses that may simply not make sense in this state while giving the government a new pretense for buying up land and even leasing it out as if to sharecroppers?
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago on this issue, I love the idea of nearby farms and local produce, but subsidizing them benefits the aesthetics and consumer choices of relatively wealthy people. The way to preserve farmland would be to allow Rhode Islanders to keep more of their money and to lighten regulations so the economy could boom, thus leaving more room in household budgets for the experiential and quality benefits of buying local.
The cost isn’t the only red flag about such programs, though. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit insists that this program will be voluntary both for the farmer looking to sell his land and the farmer wishing to buy or lease it, but a “for now” is implied. The 2010 document I cite at the link above, which further research has shown to be a starting point for much of this conversation, includes proposals for making “affordability permanent.”
The document doesn’t explain what that means, although a reader can reasonably infer the drafters were contemplating possibilities should state and federal budgets become too tight for tax-money handouts. The first suggestion is to put language in “conservation easements” that would “give conservation organizations the right of first refusal to purchase the land at agricultural value.” An FAQ from the state Agricultural Lands Preservation Commission defines “agricultural value” as the value of land after it has been reduced to account for the restriction that owners can only use it for farming.
As the Providence Journal article points out, that could be an 80% discount off the fair market value. So, before a farmer could sell his land, a non-profit, a land trust, or even the state government would have to be given the option of buying it for 20% of its value. As for the ultimate buyers, they’ll surely be restricted in what they can do, probably with requirements to follow government preferences, with allowance for bureaucrats to change the deal with the political winds.
Whether such additions to the program are currently on somebody’s secret to-do list or not, the example should remind us of the danger of taking such steps for feel-good government programs. Once government is entrenched in the process of buying, selling, and operating farmland, government effectively controls the industry, and once we’ve decided this is a legitimate activity, we can be sure government will look to apply it to other industries, as well.
After all, what’s not to love?